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Equality Myths Around Women - The MERIT Ideal

By Elaine Sihera

Why are women so driven to justify their presence in the corporate world? A diversity expert gives her opinions about the limitations of the glass ceiling, and its perpetuation.

One very senior woman, a former member of the Institute of Directors in the UK, arguably the token female at the top of this male bastion of privilege and power-broking (and without a Black face in sight), gave a good example of how successful women immediately downgrade their professional sisters with these immortal words: "By all means, encourage underrepresented groups into professions and committees of importance, but don't dilute standards and insist on numbers, irrespective of quality. Really good women want to get places on merit and do not want the currency debased."

Apparently, one can assume from this statement that the employment of men, of whatever calibre, guarantees the quality of an organisation and any hint of too many women taken on board is to, de facto, actually lower standards!

Yet she is not alone in her perception from her narrow vantage point of transitory power. Look carefully and you will see that the word 'merit' is never used with a man's eligibility for a post. It is naturally assumed that he automatically merits it with his appointment. The term is used only with underrepresented groups, but I'll return to that later.

Too many women who have managed to crawl through tiny gaps in the occupational glass ceiling now pat themselves proudly on the back, purr delightedly, "Haven't we done well to merit such inclusion?", link arms with the men to preserve their own vulnerable positions, maintain the status quo and derogate their colleagues for bleating about discrimination, unfair sackings and the rights to a good work-life balance. Having been promoted themselves on false notions of merit, they now make it harder for other women by implying that they should not be promoted just because of their gender. At the same time they miss the supreme irony of their own situation and the fact that, as we always recruit in our own image and likeness, many men are hired purely through their gender!

Playing the 'Merit' Card

As a famous American surgeon once said: "It is thought-provoking to observe that everyone in favour of birth-control has already been born." The same statement could be applied to some of the high-powered women who have made it against the odds. Having succeeded through their own hard work and determination, and being pioneers in their field, they now belittle themselves and their compatriots by playing the 'merit' card, while actually colluding with their employers to restrict female numbers.

The interesting insinuation is that the successful ones got there because they truly deserved it, but, if too many women follow in their footsteps, the sheer numbers might dilute the high standards of the men who are 'allowing' them through and that would then defeat the merit ideal. After all, too many women can't possibly merit their success! Thus they seek to justify their own presence by being gatekeepers of standards they had no part in formulating!

Female exponents of the merit principle are gloriously blind to the fact that this is precisely the way women are kept out and men hang on to their power. They let in just the odd 'deserving' female to give the impression of equality and fairness, who is then surreptitiously co-opted into helping to maintain the biased and discriminatory status quo through tokenistic merit rituals and the desire of the proud new appointee to justify her new role and to hang on it at any cost.

The real tragedy is that most women are still being denied their place in the employment ranks because they are chained to the male derogatory concept of 'merit'. So long as they carry it like a millstone around their necks, they will always feel second best and be perceived as second best, regardless of how good they think they are. The word merit, which is only ever applied to women and minority groups, is a justification, by men and misguided women to explain the position these groups have justly earned.

But why do they need to eternally justify their presence when men are not required to do that?

Elaine Sihera (Ms Cyprah - and ) is an expert author, public speaker, media contributor and columnist. The first Black graduate of the OU and a post-graduate of Cambridge University. Elaine is a CONFIDENCE guru and a consultant for Diversity Management, Personal Empowerment and Relationships.

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